On Wednesday, April 3, 2019, the Chief Justice of Belize, Honorable Kenneth Benjamin, ruled that there was sufficient reason to push the pause button on the train rushing down the tracks, with haste that might be described as indecent, toward the April 10 referendum appointment. The delay is to allow for the court to rule on a constitutional claim brought by Her Majesty’s main opposition party, the PUP, which is fully supported by our country’s third parties, the Belize Peace Movement, and a number of highly respected independent political activists.
In its headline story in the Tuesday, April 2 issue of the Amandala, Rowland A. Parks, the newspaper’s lead journalist, explained that the constitutional claim brought before the court, was “based on the argument that by signing the Special Agreement, the Foreign Minister violated the separation of powers doctrine, because he assumed powers that belonged to the Legislature, and in so doing, he bound the country to a treaty with the Republic of Guatemala.” What the court ruled on, on Wednesday, was a submission by the claimants that the April 10 referendum date be put on pause until the court had examined the substantive issue, the constitutionality of the Special Agreement. It could be a small delay, and it could be a long delay. The matter now resides with the courts.
The Special Agreement had to have been conceived with the best intentions by our leaders, but it has not been an easy sell in many quarters. The third parties and a number of highly respected political activists consider it a dangerous, even traitorous document, and they raised their voices about it from the get go. They believe that the Belizean architects of the Special Agreement have set us up to fail at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Former Prime Minister, Right Honorable Said Musa, has been in the middle of negotiations with Guatemala for decades, and there are no agreements between the countries that he doesn’t know about. But he expressed disappointment with the new UDP government when they signed the Special Agreement (in 2008), because they hadn’t “first discuss[ed]and explain[ed] the ramifications with the Belizean people.” (from Musa’s book, With Malice toward None). He was also disappointed that Guatemala would be allowed to make claims on our land, insular territories and maritime areas when “previous PUP administrations had already boxed Guatemala into a corner when we gained our independence with the overwhelming support of the United Nations for our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”(also from Musa’s book, With Malice toward None). Later, after studying the Special Agreement, Musa came to the conclusion that the Special Agreement did not endanger our territory.
Not all in the party he led to victory at the polls in 1998 and 2003 agreed with his conclusion on the agreement, that it presented no danger to the territorial integrity of our country. Some members of the PUP hold the same view that the third parties and many leading political activists do, and when the Southern Caucus of the party and some of their leaders, including the party’s deputy leader, held a meeting in Malacate Beach in Independence, Stann Creek, and made the declaration that they would be voting NO, they effectively forced their party to consider an official NO position. The leader of the PUP, who had expressed his personal view — support for the Special Agreement— then embarked on a nationwide fact-finding tour, and when he completed the tour his party met and declared against going to the ICJ. The governing party, the UDP, responded with a declaration of complete solidarity in support of going to the ICJ. Later, the UDP-led initiative for the Special Agreement scored a coup when four former foreign ministers of Belize, all PUPs, declared their support.
The road leading to the referendum to decide on whether to take the Guatemalan claim to the ICJ has been as full of twists and turns as any river or road snaking through hilly country. It has also been coldly calculated to produce a YES vote. It began with the Foreign Minister traveling the length and breadth of the country spreading a tale designed to strike terror in the hearts of Belizeans, if they were so audacious as to vote NO to the ICJ. This provoked an undesired response, and it gave way to an educational tour that at times has been accused of being near to full-blown propaganda. Billboards featuring the faces of prominent living personalities, and two resurrected formidable heroes, all saying YES, have been placed on every highway and in every city and town. All day and all night, the television stations across the country answer all the possible questions we could ask, with a firm YES. This, coupled with the billboard blitz, looks like a page borrowed from the Guatemalan handbook. They sent a roving photographer to take pictures of our citrus factories and orchards, our banana processing plants and plantations, our tourist destinations and scenic villages in the south, which teased the palate of Guatemalans with all that would be theirs if they just said YES to the Special Agreement.
Very early on, the promoters of the Special Agreement might have decided that Belizeans living abroad at this time would not buy in so easily, and this is possibly why they were excluded. Questions about why the government would be allowing the participation of recently nationalized Guatemalans, and Belizeans who bought citizenships, were pushed aside. A necessary, obligatory re-registration of voters ended up disenfranchising hundreds of citizens, but the Referendum Unit, which is steering the process, was not deterred; they still pushed ahead. Calls to postpone the referendum date were unheeded. Absolutely nothing would stop the referendum on April 10. And then, on Wednesday, April 3, the Chief Justice said, whoa, we cannot run over the constitution of the country!
The constitutional soundness of the Special Agreement had been brought up before by its opponents, alongside the other faults they saw in it. The Belize Peace Movement had explored the constitutionality of the Special Agreement, but had abandoned it when they couldn’t raise sufficient money to pay a lawyer from the Caribbean that they had hired. When the PUP, as a party, decided on a NO position, its best lawyers took up the matter, and in the nick of time, or the 11th hour, all that depending on which side you are on, the case made it to court, before the Chief Justice, Honorable Kenneth Benjamin. The lawyers who defended the Special Agreement and the date for the referendum were all dismayed by the ruling. A lot has been invested in preparing Belize for the referendum set for April 10. The Prime Minister was extreme in expressing his dissatisfaction with the turn, the delay. It might have been better for him if he had stayed at home. He said he was not in court. The Prime Minister too often puts words together that appear to be calculated to steer the court in its deliberations. We will not repeat what he said.
We could look at the political implications of the CJ’s ruling, what it could mean on the local landscape and our relations with our neighbor, but we can ignore those, for at the moment the ruling is just a hiccup, just to allow for the hearing of the substantive matter. Really, in the world of politics, it could, it is maybe likely, to pass. This pause on the matter of the referendum, it might amount to no more than a fraternal “kiss” … “but oh what it did” for our democracy. This is a great moment, a proud moment for the people in general, and the guardians of our laws, our constitutionalists, in specific. Across the globe, Belize gained some respect on Wednesday. Dictators and dictator types everywhere will read the story of this interim injunction and know that in our part of the world, the people’s laws must be respected.